In roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, not all of a dungeon master’s descriptions set a scene. DMs spend even more words describing the results of actions, often during combat. That narrative demands the skills of a radio play-by-play announcer describing the events in a sporting event, except the DM imagines the scene.
For a strong RPG play-by-play, feature the characters—player and non-player, but mostly player. No sports play-by-play announcer just talks about the ball. Folks tune in to hear about players and their athletic mastery. Likewise, the players at your table want to hear about their characters and their prowess.
For captivating descriptions of actions and outcomes, focus as much on a character’s actions as you do on the outcome. If the barbarian jumps a fissure and rolls a hit, tell how she vaults across the chasm while winding back her great sword, and then describe the blade cleaving into the beholder’s carapace.
We DMs tend to slant our descriptions to the game world and to avoid describing the player characters. It feels polite to avoid other people’s toys. But a DM doing play-by-play lets the players keep control. Your description comes after a player explains their character’s action and after the dice determine the outcome. Just relate the deed and its outcome with the most captivating description you can muster.
As a DM, spot the moments when characters do some remarkable feat. The characters represent extraordinary heroes, so those feats should come often. Put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome.
But shouldn’t players describe their own character’s exploits?
Players absolutely can contribute descriptions for their characters. As a player, you know your character better than anyone, plus you decide their actions. If you want other players to pay attention to your turn, try describing your character’s deeds as a play-by-play. You can even describe what the character feels. I promise that the others at the table will look up and listen even when they would normally tune out.
As a DM, you can encourage players to describe their characters’ heroic moments. Some players relish the chance. For others, such a performance makes them uncomfortable. That’s okay.
Have you ever overheard people talking about how well you did something? It’s the best feeling. Hearing the DM as play-by-play announcer describe your character’s exploits captures some of the same joy.
When a character does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some DMs ask players to describe their kills. D&D includes a lot of kills, so for my taste, describing them all becomes tiresome and too gruesome. Especially with kids at the table. Especially when those kids set their imaginations loose. Besides, your play-by-play should center on character rather than severed arteries. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor.
Even when the characters fail, describe them as talented and skilled heroes who come short because of the difficult challenges they face. In the first Rocky film, the hero loses, but against the odds, the outcome feels like a triumph. So a miss comes from a foe’s supernatural agility or the flying ash stinging a character’s eyes, rather than a botched swing. Avoid turning a roll of 1 into a comic fumble. Such descriptions might get some cheap laughs, but they turn characters into buffoons, rather than legends.
See When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters
Your game’s villains deserve the same flattering descriptions. After all, dangerous threats add a sense of peril to the game. And heroes must defeat deadly foes instead of cupcakes. So look for villainous moments—badass occasions when your monsters get to flaunt their menace. Think of Darth Vader demolishing rebels in pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans. D&D monsters typically arrive outmatched by heroes, so make the most of every badass turn. Legendary resistances invite villainous moments by letting foes shrug off a hero’s best shot and laugh at the character’s weakness.
Much of a DM’s play-by-play comes during combat scenes. For that, narrate every turn with two steps:
- Describe the turn by capturing the character’s action and its outcome. Step 1 centers on the characters and their deeds.
- Set up the next turn by calling the next player to act and by spotlighting the most threatening foe or urgent crisis on the battlefield.
For step 2, look for the part of the battle that poses the most urgent threat to the party. Perhaps foes have the rogue surrounded, or a character lies unconscious, or a sentry runs to sound an alarm. This step gains both practical and dramatic benefits. As a practical gain, you call the next player to attention and focus on the most pressing threat in the battle. Inattentive players get a quick review that helps them choose an action without dithering. As a dramatic gain, you build the sense of peril and strengthen the urgency players feel.
If nothing stands out as particularly urgent, then use step 2 as a chance to describe the threat of a foe or to act the role of a villain. Speaking for your villains transforms them from bags of hit points into enemies. In comics, villains mock the fools that oppose them, and we hate them for their contempt, arrogance, and cruelty. Some of the fun Dungeons & Dragons comes from crushing evil. Good dialog makes your villains seem more real, more detestable, and more satisfying to crush.
Plus you can reveal the monsters’ tactics through dialog. The ogre might say, “You hurt Grug, so I smash you.” The necromancer might say, “Barbarian, I have just the enchantment for weak-willed cretins like you.” This reframes the battle from the us verses the game master into us verses the monsters. I want players invested in their characters, but when I single out their character for attack, sometimes it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.
Sometimes to speed play, you can skip a narrative step. Not every blow merits careful description. Even if some chatterbox DM could manage so much commentary, such a detailed account would cause a fight to drag. Who could keep thinking of new ways to describe a few points of damage? Even the best play-by-play announcers sometimes just say, “It’s a swing and a miss.” Save the vivid descriptions for the bigger moments. Often, just a quick tally of damage suffices.
The static moments of a battle where foes simply trade blows can probably speed by without recaps.
When I used to run combated scenes, I avoided talking any more than absolutely necessary. I feared slowing the game’s pace. But I’ve learned that adding a few lines between turns rarely slows the tempo. Often, giving brief notice of the most urgent peril in the battle spurs players to act more quickly.
Plus the action seems more vivid, dramatic, and exciting, and that’s not nothing.
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Excellent piece. It got my brain to replaying the announcers’ commentary from my favorite college football team’s game this past week. Some additional thoughts:
There are usually TWO announcers: 1 play by play and 1 “color commentary”. Combat “narrative” can benefit from both. Often the color commentary is used when the individual plays didn’t accomplish much.
Commentary often shifts to what the *TEAM* needs to do to overcome the opponent’s advantages. Highlighting the advantages/skills of an opposing “team leader” can help focus tactics and strategy.
Even “armchair quarterbacking” happens when a bad choice by a player or coach happens, providing thoughts on what might have been a better choice – which may become relevant further into the conflict.
“Big plays” often get referenced again and again – either as something to watch out for possible repeats, or to highlight capabilities.
Many other such commentary are now playing in the back of my brain. I’ll now be paying more attention during athletic broadcasts AND as I inject commentary into combats.
As the analyst on a professional broadcast I love the idea of flexing into that space while DMing.
Gaming remotely now, my players’ minds tend to wander when it’s not their turn. [Not entirely their fault – they are “at home” so kids and chores and WfH issues come up.] So I will frequently “recap” the previous few actions taken – monster or PC – so the player who is about to act remembers what’s going on. When I do this, though, I try to specifically recap *from the PC’s viewpoint”. Last session, for example, half the party was trapped in a tower, staying away from a Huge mutant owl-thing; the other half were trying to escape its flock of skeletal owls by fleeing downhill through tree cover.
When it was the bard’s turn, his recap was “The skoga is trying to fit through the double doors, scrunching down and whipping its antlers about; Grunil just told [the wizard] to flip over the desk and take cover. You are currently hiding behind Grunil, and you recall watching your dart strike the thing’s feathered breast and stop dead like the dart had hit plate armor.”
The warlock’s turn – next initiative – “You can hear the screeching of the huge beast at the top of the hill, and Grunil’s distinctive shouting… no fireballs or lightning bolts from the wizard though. You can see the skeletal owl that just swooped under the canopy to side swipe the cleric, starting to angle back for another pass; looks like two other owls have been unable to follow you under the trees. You are still bleeding heavily from that talon strike before you got under cover.”
The tower crew are entirely focused on the beast in front of them – no details about their bloodied companion or the flock outside. The outside crew get only the details they can hear and see. but everyone gets a quick recap narrative so they can take their turn without “wait, what’s going on?”
I also tend to describe defenses rather than state them. The bard’s dart did 3 damage – but reduced to 1 by the creature’s “resistance to nonmagical (and nonsilvered) weapons”… hence the description above. Earlier they fought some golems which were magic resistant. Instead of “your shot misses”, I described it as “the ray seems to bend just before it strikes the golem, missing by inches”; instead of “half damage”, I described it as “most of the blast splashes off the golem’s skin; moments later, you see only a little char/frost/scarring at the impact site”.